Although The Bear is one of Anton Chekhov’s lesser-known plays, this “Farce in One-Act," as it is subtitled, is an excellent representative of its genre. Dedicating the play to N. N. Solovtsov, Chekhov is said to have been inspired by his friend’s boorish performance in a French vaudeville. Indeed, with its fast-paced, biting dialogue alluding to popular song lyrics, accidentally broken furniture, and exaggerated emotions that quickly turn into their opposite, this three-character drama resembles an act from a vaudeville.
The action begins at Elena Ivanovna Popova’s house, as she is seen bending over a photograph of her dead husband with a look of “deep mourning” on her face. Her servant, Luka, tries to comfort her and encourage her to finally leave the house, seven months after her husband’s death. Popova stubbornly refuses, citing the pretext that she must remain forever faithful to her husband—as he had never been to her. By locking herself up in her house for the rest of her life, she intends to show her deceased husband what true love and faithfulness mean.
A bell interrupts Popova’s mournful sobbing, and Gregorii Stepanovich Smirnov enters the scene. Naturally, Popova refuses to see him—after all, she has sworn to not see anyone until her death. Smirnov does not give up, claiming that he has come on urgent business. Without the excessive show of courtesy characteristic of his social class—a sign of his alleged disillusionment with high-society life and women—Smirnov demands that Popova return the money owed to him by her late husband. As she does not have money at the house and is not in the “mood” to deal with financial matters, she tells him to return the day after tomorrow.
Angered by her casual response, so “typical” of capricious female nature and fickle “female logic,” Smirnov refuses to leave until she repays the debt. Next, they engage in a series of arguments: Smirnov accuses women of dishonesty and of making false claims to equality, while Popova makes the argument personal by calling Smirnov a “bear” for his boorish manners. Smirnov exclaims that if Popova, as a feminist, really wants equality, he will give it to her—in the form of a duel. Surprised by her acceptance of his challenge, Smirnov begins to fall in love with this “fire, powder, rocket” of a woman. After instructing her on how to use a pistol, he is forced to admit that he is beginning to like her. Even then she refuses to back down from his challenge. This refusal fuels Smirnov’s love for her further, and he offers her his hand. After Popova’s numerous refusals and Smirnov’s threats to leave, Smirnov passionately kisses her. At this moment, Luka and two other workers enter the scene with household weapons, ready to break up the dual by force.
Written, published, and performed in 1888, Chekhov’s play reflects on and pokes fun of liberal discourses in mid- to late-nineteenth-century Russia, in particular those concerned with "The Woman Question." The Bear is engaged in dialogue with Chekhov's contemporaries and earlier Russian literature on women’s emancipation, such as Ivan Turgenev’s On the Eve (1859) and Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? (1863).